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Progress and Setbacks with DTT in Colombia

María Paula Martínez*. Colombia, may 2014.

Versión en español | Versão em Português

The transition to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) in Colombia began five years ago, but it is only now, in 2014, that the topic is beginning to be discussed by the general public. This happened because the country’s main stores started selling digital televisions and tuner boxes nationwide, and private channels like RCN and Caracol announced that the World Cup will be transmitted using the digital signal on two new DTT channels.

This announcement brought DTT to the forefront for several reasons. First, it introduced competition with pay TV. It also introduced the idea that viewers will need to invest in new equipment. Finally, digital coverage was expanded to more areas of the country.

Until now, television transmissions of the World Cup and other sporting events like the UEFA Champions League were limited to private and closed television channels. The analog signal only allowed viewers to watch the most important matches, and one had to pay a private television service to watch the rest of the games. There has been an explosion of commercials for football packages at competitive prices from companies like DirectTV and Claro over the past several months. But the recent news that 100% of the World Cup matches would be transmitted via DTT ignited discussions of digital television access, transition, equipment, and prices. According to an article published by Semana magazine, “The goal is for the people of Colombia to understand the value of free high definition television and to end the myth that one should pay to watch television, which is a public service.”

According to the government’s official website, only 0.89% of the country has access to digital coverage, and we are just two months away from the first World Cup matches. Progress has come very slowly since Colombia’s migration to digital television was announced in September 2008. This is due to several factors, including the nation’s lack of experience with network development, the closure of the CNTV television regulating body, the creation of a new agency to oversee the process, and the failure to award the tender for the creation of a third private channel.

In mid-June 2013, Rohde & Schwarz won the competitive bidding process for the implementation of phase 1 of the public digital television network with which the government is seeking to expand the service in 2014. After the competition was declared void twice due to a lack of offers that met the requirements, it was announced that the Colombia-Spain branch of Rohde & Schwarz had won a contract worth US$15.8 million to install 14 new stations in Colombia’s largest cities, reaching 50% of the national population and benefitting the public channels Señal Colombia, Señal Institucional, Teleantioquía, Telecafé, Telecaribe, Telepacífico, and TRO.

Challenges such as establishing pricing and programming and overcoming technical issues related to networks, antennae, and signal distribution, in which the National Television Authority (ANTV), the National Spectrum Agency (ANE), and the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communication (MINTIC) work together, have emerged.

For several years, there was uncertainty about pricing given that Colombia had adopted the European DVB-T2 television standard in contrast to all of its neighbors. In 2010, when the digital signal test transmissions began, it was speculated that set-top boxes would cost approximately US$40, and that there would be subsidies or free equipment deliveries for members of lower socioeconomic strata, as occurred in Argentina.

However, if a Colombian wants to watch the DTT signal, he or she must first buy one of the two boxes that have been made available on the market, and both cost around US$80. This is a very high price for those earning the minimum wage, which is currently around US$310 in Colombia. The other option is  to buy a new TV. In response to this situation, conservative Senator Jorge Pedraza Gutiérrez recently authored a bill to totally or partially subsidize the boxes needed for DTT for low-income families. The answer of the Colombian Minister of Information Technologies and Communication, Diego Molano Vega, was: “If Congress forces us to give away decoders for free, they need to tell us where to get the money”.

The new televisions hit the market in September 2013 and were priced at between US$800 and US$4000 dollars or even more depending on the size and quality of the unit and other technical factors. In March 2014, the Directorate of Industry and Commerce filed a lawsuit against 16 TV manufacturers and department stores including Sony, LG, Ripley, Falabella, Éxito, Cencosud and La Polar, due to the lack of information provided to consumers regarding whether or not the televisions that they carried included the tuner. This information was to be provided using stickers, special boxes, or other distinctive marks. However, the companies failed to provide information about the new DTT service. The lawsuit is ongoing, and if the violation of consumers’ rights is proved, each of these companies will have to pay a US$620,000 fine.

Thus, at the end of the first quarter of 2014, DTT is moving forward with difficulty in Colombia. For the first time since 2008, the topic is being widely discussed, and everyone is clear on one thing: if you want to watch DTT, you must make a technical adjustment- and pay for it. Discussion of the pros and cons of DTT has not yet begun, and the government has not made any statements regarding the creation of new channels, the diversity of contents, or the inclusion of new players in the market. Meanwhile, eight out of ten Colombians are still enjoying pay TV, which they receive via an analog signal which masquerades as digital.

*Journalist, professor at the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá), and creator of mediosencolombia.com.

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